Located on a marshy peninsula formed by the Ashley and Cooper Rivers just a few feet above mean sea level, Charleston, South Carolina, has faced challenges posed by water since its founding. Removing excess water, transforming swampy land into dry ground, and filling to raise the surface has characterized the city’s built environment. Butler traces the history of these activities in Lowcountry at High Tide. She states her mission clearly at the outset—to provide “a thorough history of fill and reclamation” in Charleston, “a city in which flooding has been a continuous hindrance to human habitation since European settlers first recorded the phenomenon in the late seventeenth century” (1).
Lowcountry at High Tide follows the city’s hydrological works from its founding in the late seventeenth century to the present day. Butler shows how drainage and fill efforts marked Charleston even in its initial years, although these colonial efforts were largely unregulated and piecemeal. Public works increased with the city’s incorporation in the Federal era, but a funding model based on assessing affected landowners meant that work was uneven and slow. The antebellum period saw even more extensive drainage and reclamation in the name of economic development and public health, although the Civil War and a shortage of funds temporarily erased some of these gains. The bulk of the book—Chapters 4 through 9—focuses on the city since the Civil War, for which the source material is most abundant. After the war, more modern understandings of disease led to efforts to build a distinct sewer system (separate from the storm-drain network). The city then turned much of its drainage and fill efforts to its northern fringe, expanding into the lowest and swampiest ground on the peninsula. In the second half of the twentieth century, drainage and reclamation changed in significant ways. More ambitious and expensive projects became feasible under new funding models; wetlands found defenders in the environmental movement; and the city shifted its expansion imperative from filling marshland to annexing suburbs located off the peninsula. Butler concludes with advice for Charleston’s current officials concerning the importance of understanding these historical efforts to manage the city’s hydrology.
The book exists at the intersection of several fields—history, geography, urban planning, and historic preservation (Butler’s academic specialty). Portions of the text are informed by the methods of environmental history, as Butler explores the importance of disease and public health in shaping Charleston’s growth and development. Outbreaks of yellow fever, mosquito populations, and the miasmatic theory of illness all encouraged the management of water and reclamation in particular ways. Several potentially useful works on southern water, health, and cities, however, are missing from the study, which would benefit from the inclusion of scholarship by Colten, Humphreys, Stewart, and Valencius, among others.1
The research really shines in Butler’s intimate mastery of municipal records. From meeting minutes to engineering diagrams, she has plumbed these quotidian documents to reconstruct a fine-grained account of Charleston’s various hydrological and reclamation works. Interesting historical maps illustrate the text and help to make sense of the details. Although many of the city’s antebellum records were destroyed in the Civil War, Butler has reconstructed their accounts through minutes published in local papers and other reproductions to the extent possible. Her detail-oriented approach is also evident in the inclusion of three appendixes—two drainage reports that she found to be instrumental sources (one from the late nineteenth and the other the mid-twentieth century) and the third a helpful timeline of drainage, fill, and reclamation projects in the city. Butler provides a few comparisons between Charleston and other coastal cities, but overall the work is narrative rather than analytical. Nonetheless, the book is exemplary in showing how municipal records might be used to reconstruct a historical urban landscape.
Although the research is impressive, it raises the question of scalability. An extensive and thorough survey of municipal literature might be employed for similar case studies, but the time and energy involved would be prohibitive for compiling a history of urban drainage at the national level. This tension between fine detail and broad survey is inherent to historical analysis and in no way diminishes Butler’s accomplishment.
This book will be most useful to Charlestonians, whether officials desiring a better understanding of the origins of the modern city or individuals engaged in historic preservation. More broadly, it should attract some interest from scholars of southern cities, coastal development, and municipal planning.
Craig E. Colten, An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature (Baton Rouge, 2004); Margaret Humphreys, Yellow Fever and the South (Baltimore, 1999; orig. pub. 1992); Mart A. Stewart, “What Nature Suffers to Groe”: Life, Labor, and Landscape on the Georgia Coast, 1680–1920 (Athens, 2002); Conevery Bolton Valencius, The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land (New York, 2002).